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Creative X-Fi Xmod USB sound card review

Great sound on the go

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Our Verdict

The X-Fi Xmod rates pretty highly in the style stakes and does its job pretty well too

For

  • Has its own carry pack

    Makes laptop music sound good

Against

  • Doesn't stand out from headphones enough

Laptops - now outselling desktops in the UK - are undeniably great. This review, for example, is being typed on a three-quarter-sized keyboard in the waiting room of a doctor's surgery. When the laptop storing these words gets back to the office, a proper keyboard, monitor and mouse will be plugged in and full desktop service will be resumed.

For all practical purposes, there's only one difference between this laptop and a PC: laptops make music sound terrible. Kicking back to the classical strains of a Mozart MP3 just pains the ears, thanks to an ungodly integrated sound chip and its sole headphone out port.

It's a common dilemma, but here comes Creative to the rescue with the X-Fi Xmod USB soundcard. We've seen other attempts at this, but the Xmod really stands out for one reason - it requires no drivers, no power supply and it even has its own carry pack.

The design is Apple-rivalling in its straightforward elegance. It has one big set-up button, a volume knob and two switches to turn on either Creative's upscaling tools - the X-Fi Crystalizer, as seen on the PCI versions of this chip, and the pseudo 3D effect of CMSS chip.

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Because there are no drivers, you miss out on many of the functions of the fully fledged X-Fi cards, but the Crystalizer really can help to rescue badly encoded MP3s by upscaling them to 24-bit audio and filling in missing data. The result is a more natural sound than can be achieved by playing around with an equaliser. And at £50, it's not an outrageous investment for people who use their laptop for music or movies regularly.

So what's the catch? Well, we can't help but feel that all that X-Fi goodness is somehow wasted on a device that only has a headphone jack and a stereo line out.

Consider that you can invest in a £20 stereo headset and receive an all-too-similar USB sound device thrown; all you really get for your money here is a bit of upscaling and a nice volume knob. What we really want is all-singing, all-dancing multichannel surround sound, preferably with a digital out as well. Only then can we can turn our backs on the desktop for good.